Trucking innovations range from the crude to the sophisticated

Rolf Lockwood

Old-timers and students of trucking in the trenches will know about ‘prairie cruise control’ but newbies and those who hail from foreign parts likely won’t. It’s an interesting one, a simple if somewhat dangerous example of ingenuity of a sort that could be seen all over the place 40 years ago. At the wheel or in the shop, trucking folks have always been innovators and problem-solvers.

I didn’t know about that particular one until a searingly hot summer day in 1980 or thereabouts, in Winnipeg, when I spent some time with what was then probably the leading Canadian carrier, Reimer Express. I was always in learning mode in those days, still new to our industry. So I made a point of visiting as many fleets as I could, talking to owners and managers and dispatchers and shop supers and of course drivers. Back then, and it’s no different now, I hated having a vacuum where I wanted knowledge to be. So I listened and learned.

The Reimer brass would have been aghast if they’d known what their star, senior owner-operator had created.

I walked with him out into the yard and climbed up into his brand-new Peterbilt 362 cabover. Once settled, and with a grin on his face, he asked me if I’d ever seen prairie cruise control. Nope, said I. And with that he reached under his seat and produced a naked piece of wood. My white-haired new friend had fashioned a short piece of 2×4 pine into a simple wedge that he shoved into place between the loud pedal and the seat base. And there it was, cruise control, carefully ‘calibrated’ to produce 60 or 65 mph in top gear.

Being at the top of the load board, he had an easy regular run to Regina, if I remember correctly. Maybe Saskatoon. Either way, driving at night, it was a dead simple haul on a decent road, made for cruise control. Hand-made or otherwise.

I remember asking him how on earth he stayed awake, and how quickly he could have ‘switched off’ his custom cruise control if the need suddenly arose. I mean, a slight touch of the brake pedal wouldn’t have done the trick as it does now. Naturally, his response was a shrug.

This little moment of discovery for me sprang to mind as I was thinking about some of the massive innovations that we see routinely today, just a little more sophisticated than that hunk of Winnipeg wood. Pretty much every day there’s a new solution to a problem or a challenge that we didn’t even know we had. Back in the 1980s things didn’t come so thick and fast, but I also remember other significant moments that changed things in big ways. One of them in particular demonstrates not inventiveness from the shop or the truck cab but courage at the leadership level.

Computerized routing and dispatch were not a thing, at least not in Canada, until Serge Gagnon at XTL Transport in Montreal took that sizeable leap using software from Carrier Logistics out of New York. I don’t remember the year – 1987? – but I sure do remember the difference it made in the dispatch room. I’d seen more than a few such rooms by then, but none so quiet and composed as XTL’s. It was still early days so the big board and all its slots were still there, parts of it still in use, but the operation had been transformed. And uncharacteristically, those dispatchers were smiling.

Can you imagine trying to run a fleet of any size today without the benefit of automated routing and dispatch? For my money, this innovation is one of the biggest and best I’ve seen in my 40-plus trucking years. I don’t think it was perfectly smooth sailing right from the start at XTL, but as brave leaps go, this one was special.

I suppose the point in all this is that we’re equipped to win. Pandemic be damned.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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